Spending the Holidays Away from Home as an Expat Abroad

Living abroad has its ups and downs. You get to explore another culture and life feels like an adventure every day, but you also start missing some of your favorite things from home (I’m looking at you, In-N-Out). I’m going on my 4th full year living in Barcelona, so the positives clearly outweigh the negatives for me, but I must admit that the holidays are still one of the hardest times to be away.

Of course, when you are living abroad you’re away from friends and family back home. Thanks to technology, this generally doesn’t cause an issue for me. They’re only a Skype call or Whatsapp message away, after all! In fact, I feel like I talk more with some of my family now that I’m abroad than I did before, as they keep up with all of my adventures via social media.

But during the holidays, it is different. Skyping your parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. on Thanksgiving or Christmas just isn’t the same as being there and helping prepare a meal together, eating and spending time with them. It just isn’t.

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So I must say, the holidays are the most difficult time to be abroad. When you make the decision to move, it is important to keep this in mind. Perhaps you can get a plane ticket home for the holidays, but you have to be prepared for the hefty price tag that comes with traveling during these peak times.

My First Thanksgiving Away

My first Thanksgiving away from home, I was living with a host family. They were very friendly, and knew just how important Thanksgiving was to me. They wanted to do something special, but it was difficult since it was the middle of a school week (and they have a young daughter) and they were always very, very busy. I spent the day working, teaching my students about this important tradition. None of them really cared or understood, which was just a reminder to me how far from home I was. After work, I went home hoping to at least enjoy something a little special.

The host family ended up ordering some kebabs for dinner, which isn’t bad… but it definitely isn’t a Thanksgiving meal. I was thankful for being there, and for the kindness of my host family, but when I went to bed that night and was scrolling through pictures from friends and family back home… it was difficult. I had to go to sleep early, missing my family, and head straight into work the next morning just like any normal day. 

My First Christmas Away

Thankfully, that year my mom came to spend Christmas with me. My host family graciously invited us both to another family member’s house, where they had a Christmas tree and everything (not typical in Spain). We had a delicious meal and drank way too much Cava (Catalan champagne), and it truly felt like Christmas. I wish my other family members could’ve been there too, but I have great memories of that day.

A delicious lunch of duck, made special by my host family

One interesting thing about spending the holidays abroad is that you realize that your traditions aren’t typical around the world, and that each country has something special. For example, in Barcelona, Christmas day isn’t actually the most important holiday – rather, everyone gets excited for January 6th, which is the 3 Kings Day. People do get together for a meal and exchange some presents on Christmas, but the big and important gifts are left until the 6th. 

Tió de Nadal – a Catalan Christmas Tradition

Instead of a Christmas tree, Catalans have a variant: the Tió de Nadal, a log with a painted happy face. These logs can be bought already made, or sometimes families go out into the forest to find their own log and paint it themselves. When it is brought home, they cover it with a blanket (generally red) and feed it (it works similar to leaving cookies for Santa) during the weeks leading up to Christmas day. Finally, when the day arrives (some families do it on Christmas Eve, others on Christmas day), the children grab sticks, sing a song, and beat on the poor log until it poops presents.

That is not a typo.

The log poops presents and sweets.

I was shocked too, and I still can’t get over how funny and ridiculous this tradition is. But I’ve grown to love it. So, what are the mechanics of the pooping, you may ask? Generally, as the kids go into the other room to sing the traditional song and wave their sticks around in preparation for the beating, parents quickly hide a bunch of presents under the red blanket. Depending on how many presents and how many people there are, sometimes families hang a blanket from the ceiling, with the back end of the log hidden behind it. Someone can then stay behind it with the presents, pushing them out as necessary.

My second and third Christmas in Catalonia, I went to my boyfriend’s (now husband’s) family’s house to take part in this silly tradition. We ate way too much, as is typical at holiday meals, and enjoyed all of the fun Catalan traditions. I missed my family, but was very thankful to be included in the festivities.

Thanksgiving This Year in Barcelona

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Of course, since Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated here, I haven’t yet been able to enjoy a typical Thanksgiving meal… until now. Now that I’m not living with host families and I have a flexible work schedule, I made sure to plan out the different recipes and gather the ingredients. And I’m very excited because it will be my husband’s first Thanksgiving meal!

The only problem is that some of the ingredients are incredibly difficult (or impossible) to find in Barcelona, so I have to be creative and make some things from scratch. I know every family is different, but for me the most important elements of a Thanksgiving meal are:

  • Stuffing
  • Green Bean Casserole
  • Mashed Potatoes and Gravy
  • Pumpkin Pie
  • Turkey

Yes, I said turkey last… because to me, it is honestly the least important part. Sure, it is the iconic image of Thanksgiving, and people spend tons of time slaving over it to make it just right… but I’ll take an extra serving of stuffing over turkey any day.

Anyways, as I was planning and gathering ingredients, I began to realize I had a real challenge ahead of me. While my family and I love to cook, we would always use a little bit of cheating when making the holiday meals (shh, don’t tell anyone).

For example, the stuffing? We used the bread cubes from a box back home. Not possible to find here, so I’m drying out the bread myself for the first time ever.

Green bean casserole? My family recipe requires cream of mushroom soup and french fried onions. I have never once, in all of my years here, seen cream of mushroom or cream of anything for that matter in Spain. Thankfully, after searching a few stores, I did find french fried onions, though.

Mashed potatoes? Thankfully, this is one recipe that didn’t give me any challenges… potatoes are universally scrumptious!

Pumpkin pie? Another thing my family always made from a can. I haven’t found canned pumpkin here, so I decided to buy a whole pumpkin and do it myself… but I only found butternut squash. Thankfully, a quick internet search assured me that it was a viable substitute!

And turkey, the star of any Thanksgiving meal…? I don’t know if I didn’t look hard enough, but it is basically impossible to find a whole turkey here. So call me a cheater, but I opted for a simple chicken instead.

I’m looking forward to seeing how it all turns out! I will give an update in my next post.

Are you spending the holidays abroad? Have you tried making traditional holiday meals while in another country? Tell me about your experience below!

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